Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I work with an American ex-patriot who has lived in the UK for over 30 years. As an American in a remote corner of England, she’s a bit of a magnet for other ex-pat Americans in the area – mostly the wives of temporarily seconded US staff at the nearby nuclear complex – who want to know how she’s managed to survive, and indeed thrive, in a country which sometimes seems so alien to them that they might as well be living on another planet.
As part of their introduction to British culture, she’s been known to hand over a DVD boxset saying, “If you want to understand the British, watch this.”
The DVDs she hands over are not of Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Candleford or any of the other myriad costume dramas set in the Never-Never Land that passes for bygone England in the minds of today’s programme producers: they’re Dad’s Army.
It was J B Priestley who said that the comedy that comes from character is “the richest and the wisest kind of humour, sweetening and mellowing life for us” … and Dad’s Army is one of the most character-driven sit-coms ever seen on British television.
It was born out of Jimmy Perry’s desire for a decent television role. He was an actor by trade and making a respectable living, but he felt unfulfilled by what he was being offered, and so he sat down and wrote a 30 minute comedy script about the Home Guard called The Fighting Tigers. Perry’s agent, Ann Callender, was the wife of the writer/producer David Croft … and from such happy coincidences are fortunes wrought.
There’s a detailed description of how The Fighting Tigers became Dad’s Army in Graham McCann’s excellent book Dad’s Army – The Making of a Classic Television Show but suffice it to say that the BBC trusted David Croft’s judgement and commissioned six half hour episodes. The first episode was screened on the 31st of July 1968 and was met with – unusually – both public and critical approval, howbeit cautious. One critic, Ron Boyle of the Daily Express, even said prophetically:
“I cannot say I cracked a rib, split my sides, or even raised a good hearty belly-laugh, but some instinct is telling me that the BBC is about to come up with a classic comedy series …”
And, of course, they did.
It may seem surprising nobody had realized before that the Home Guard was prime comedy material … but the motley collection of volunteers whose task it was to defend the UK during the darkest days of the Second World War were mostly forgotten by the people who were busy enjoying the Swinging Sixties. The men who were too old or too young or otherwise exempt from active service had signed up, done their job with the sparse materials provided for them and then, when they were no longer needed, dispersed to become no more than a footnote in history.
Croft and Perry changed that forever: but they didn’t do it by making the Home Guard figures of fun – far from it. Starting from a position of respect, they created characters so vivid, recognizable and, most importantly, likeable that the comedy flowed naturally from the relationships within the group.
At its heart were two men locked eternally in a very British class struggle – Captain George Mainwaring and Sergeant Arthur Wilson, played respectively by Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier. When Huw Wheldon, the then Controller of Programmes at the BBC, dropped in on the filming of the new series, he couldn’t make head nor tail of what was going on:
Suddenly I realised that I had done the casting wrongly in my own mind. I had taken it for granted that John Le Mesurier, elegant, intelligent, sardonic and rather weary, was the officer; and that Arthur Lowe, brisk, belligerent and bustling, was the sergeant. But [it was actually] the other way round. Lowe was Captain Mainwaring and Le Mesurier was Sergeant Wilson. I was delighted. It was the first note of unpredictability in a series that has been fresh and unpredictable ever since. (From Huw Wheldon’s lecture ‘The Achievement of Television’. BBC. 1975.)
Although the inspired Lowe/Le Mesurier combo was the pivot around which the series turned, the satellite characters were no less engaging – from Clive Dunn’s fussy, panicking but heroic little butcher Lance Corporal Jones to John Laurie’s ferociously bolshie and doom-laden undertaker Private Frazer via Ian Lavender’s cosseted mummy’s boy Private Pike, Arnold Ridley’s pacific, incontinent octogenarian Private Godfrey and James Beck’s Cockney wide boy Private Walker. They were not only one of the most experienced ensembles on television they were also – with a combined age in 1971 of 524, one of the oldest.
Ian Lavender, the ‘baby’ of the production at 22 when filming started, said of the cast that while they were not natural playmates, they were great workmates and the obvious camaraderie between them persisted until – literally – death did them part. Although Arthur Lowe was famously irksome to work with from time to time – fussy, snobbish and self-regarding , just like Mainwaring – every member of the cast seems to have been genuinely fond of him. Croft was driven to distraction by his refusal to learn his lines until the actual day of filming, and John Le Mesurier, who was always word perfect, once ‘phoned Croft up in exasperation and demanded “Can’t you get him to learn the bloody thing?”. But they forgave him everything, because although he may have wrecked any number of carefully crafted punchlines by paraphrasing them, he found laughs where none had previously existed through matchless timing and a near genius for physical comedy.
Lowe wasn’t the only cast member to bear more than a passing resemblance to his on-screen character, either; Le Mesurier was also basically playing himself – casual, laid-back and sleepily anarchic he swanned through both his life and work with the air of a man who found it all immensely amusing. (His last words, to his wife Joan, were “It’s all been rather lovely.”)
With two septuagenarians – Ridley and Laurie – in the cast, along with Lowe and Le Mesurier both in their sixties – it was inevitable that death would claim one of them before too long, but that death when it came shook them to their foundations and many would argue that they never really recovered from it. James Beck was the second youngest cast member after Lavender, but in common with both Lowe and Le Mesurier, he had a long and unhappy relationship with alcohol and in July 1973, part way through filming Series 6, he collapsed with crippling stomach pains. Taken straight to hospital, he lapsed into a coma and three weeks later, without ever regaining consciousness, he died from a combination of heart failure, kidney failure and pancreatitis. He was just 44 years old.
Although Dad’s Army continued successfully for another three series, eventually racking up 80 episodes, Beck’s death left a hole in their ranks that they never really managed to fill. The dynamic had altered and nothing was ever quite the same again.
Croft and Perry’s scripts were beautifully crafted little gems – burnished by the now-iconic performances – which moved seamlessly from slapstick, through observational comedy to poignancy and back again, and it’s a mark of the influence they continue to exert that in any random social gathering in the UK, you can say “Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring!” or “Don’t tell him, Pike!” and almost everyone in the room will not only know exactly what you’re talking about but also chip in with ”They don’t like it up ‘em” and “Stupid boy!” …
The comedy of Dad’s Army sprang – and springs – from recognition. We see ourselves and those around us in that shabby church hall in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea. Mainwaring’s bumptious self-importance, Pike’s youthful but simple-minded enthusiasm, Wilson’s world-weariness (“Is that entirely wise, sir?”), Walker’s eternal eye on the fast buck, Frazer’s equally eternal pessimism (“We’re doomed, we’re ALLLLL doooomed …”) and dear, gentle Godfrey’s exquisite Edwardian courtesy are a part of us – all of us – in our many moods and guises. We carry something of each of them within us. The ramshackle, slightly chaotic make-do-and-mend world of Mainwaring and his willing but rag-tag little army is a world we recognize and feel comfortable in, even today: and therein lies the secret of its success. It held a mirror up to a nation, to us at our idiosyncratic best: and we liked what we saw.
And here’s a treat for you … a lovely little ‘easter egg’ from the boxed set, with rather wonderful visuals, of Bud Flanagan singing Jimmy Perry’s perfect pastiche of a title song “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler?”, complete with a couple of previous unheard lines.
Dad’s Army: The Story of a Classic Television Series by Graham McCann. Fourth Estate. 2001, ISBN: 1-84115-309-5.
The Making of a Television Legend: Dad’s Army – Bill Pertwee. Pavilion Books. 1997. ISBN: 978-18448-6105-7.
(Photo credit: Copyright BBC. Low resolution image, used for illustrative purposes only.)